Love is in the air – but what about around the cubicles?
Where some might see workplace romances as too Mad Men-esque for the modern office, employment lawyer Natalie MacDonald says as long as it's consensual, having a relationship with a boss or co-worker doesn't have to be disruptive. And it's a lot more common than you think.
"We know [dating in the workplace] goes on all the time," she said.
Having said that, Ms. MacDonald cautions against having a relationship with your supervisor. "Don't date your boss … Why? Because otherwise your lover will have control over your pay and your career path."
From a legal standpoint, office romances present a problem only when the relationship affects an employee's ability to do their work. A common example, Ms. MacDonald said, is when a person cuts off the relationship and the other refuses to accept the fact, resulting in unwanted attention or even bullying. That lays the grounds for a potential workplace harassment suit.
"I've seen constructive dismissals as a result of these situations. It can get very, very ugly, very quickly," Ms. MacDonald said.
While many employers frown on workplace romances, there is no doubt that when employees spend so many of their waking hours together, relationships are more likely to develop.
"The workplace is probably one of the best places that people can meet, particularly in a large organization," she said. "When Cupid strikes, that's wonderful, as long as the love stays between the lovers and doesn't spill into the [rest of the] workplace."
As a rule, employers can't legally ban workplace dating, even when it's between a boss and their subordinate. Yet there's often a belief that people should hide their in-office flings; that may not be the case, but it doesn't mean public displays of affection are acceptable. Ms. MacDonald is clear that they they have no place in a work environment.
One employee at an ad agency in Vancouver, who asked to remain anonymous, met his girlfriend three years ago while he was an account manager and she was an intern, and they kept their relationship secret until both left the company for new jobs.
"If we were both coming to work in the same vehicle, one of us would get dropped off a couple blocks away, or if we were going to hang out after work, one of us would leave 20 minutes before the other just so it wasn't super-obvious," he said.
When asked why they hid the relationship, he said "we didn't really think it was any of our office's business given that we weren't in a direct working relationship."
Indeed, Ms. MacDonald said she doesn't see any reason why two colleagues would need to disclose their relationship in a workplace – although if there's a power imbalance, she says, it's smart to inform HR that the relationship exists and is consensual.
Still, Ms. MacDonald said there's a time and place for managers to intervene or risk facing liability, particularly if they see an romance becoming a problem for other employees – such as when a couple works in a larger group and keeps information to themselves, affecting other employees' career advancement.
"Supervisors are just as liable as an organization if, in fact, that comes to their attention and they don't address it and it has negative impact on the workplace," she said.
As for the couples themselves, Ms. MacDonald recommends keeping a paper trail of e-mails, gifts and cards that have been sent and received, because workplace harassment cases often come down to "he-said, she-said" evidence.
"I would advise either party to ensure that they keep files of all that," she said. "Keep a box."